Simon groaned and dipped his head to check himself over, tugging nervously on the cuffs of the dress shirt he was wearing for the fitting. He couldn’t help himself; he just wanted to strip and bolt - forget the suit, forget the job, forget that he had only to turn around to see his reflection in triplicate. So instead, he fidgeted, fingers aggressively massaging the expensive cloth as he summoned up the will to leave the dressing area.
With a deep breath, he closed his eyes and reached out with his hand to push the heavy velvet curtain that hid him from the tailors, felt the rich fabric just brush his finger tips at the same moment he realized he was pivoting on the ball of his foot to face the tall mirrors on the back wall. He stood, breathing quickly, his eyes tightly closed even as he faced the mirrors. He could feel their eyes on him, judging him, evaluating the minutia of his being. Three sets of eyes, one to a mirror. At last being unable to take it anymore, feeling more and more panic rise within himself, he peeked from beneath his eyelashes, knowing in the instant that he was surrendering himself over to them. There wasn’t even a moment to avert his eyes from the glass… No time to keep from looking into the stranger's eyes, nor to brace himself for what always came next. Always, always, he felt his heart leap from its place into his throat and his stomach fell away as the stranger lifted a well-groomed hand to the glass in a movement that Simon mirrored perfectly, bringing them palm to palm, seemingly separated only the infinitesimal depth of an eighth-inch sheet of glass. His will sagged even as he tried to tear himself from the vision, but it held him, looking him up and down as if appraising a purchase.
And then it was gone - only not… He picked at his lapels with a new confidence and turned sideways to check the lines. Drawing his gut in in an exaggerated manner, he watched the coat and shirt fall away from his body, the weight of the fabric drawing it flat with nary a wrinkle to hang loosely from his frame. Nodding in satisfaction, Simon took a step back so as to better appreciate the cut of the suit, all the while confounded by the alien sensation of his own movements, feeling almost as if someone else was in possession of his body; he dismissed the idea - there was no other mind at work here, nothing that he could feel, and he was completely aware of his actions. He let go a little more, relaxing into the lack of need to think and instead examined the stranger looking back at him. He might have been Simon, once upon a time, but now it had the look of an imposter, a mind that he could not recognize more than a fraction of himself in. His clothes were tailored to perfection, the style wonderfully selected to compliment his physique, and besides, he carried it well. He turned again to examine himself in profile, then inspected the back via a hand mirror before nodding and brushing the curtain aside to permit the tailors to examine their work for flaws.
“Just…” he started the thought, then cut himself off as he stripped down, carefully returning the expensive garment piece by piece to its hangers. Rubbing his right wrist in a nervous gesture, he looked once again in the mirror; the stranger was still there… or perhaps a different man this time, standing nearly naked at the centre of the changing room. On critical examination, the other's body wasn’t bad, perhaps a few pounds heavy; what was truly striking was how much more at ease the stranger appeared in his nakedness than Simon felt. Even the habitual tick of rubbing his wrist when uncomfortable seemed to become something that almost relayed a casual contempt and boredom and the man's stance reflected a self-assuredness that anyone in his state of undress was seemed unlikely to feel. He turned his back to the mirror, unwilling to look anymore and began to dress again. “Pants, shirt…” he began counting each article of clothing, taking care to make sure that each was put on properly while resolutely avoiding the mirror and the disconcerting dissidence that he had been fighting within himself for some time, a lingering, intrusive thought that the person in the mirror was someone completely different from himself. “Sweater… Wallet, keys, phone.” He patted his pockets, feeling for each of the items in turn. The disconnect from himself was something that was normally easily forgotten once the mirrors were gone. People he dealt with regularly treated what ever version himself he was at the moment well enough, most seeming to be completely unaware of his continuous crisis of identity, leading him to concluded that they were addressing one of the people that he saw in the mirror, not him as he knew himself; it never seemed to change the outcome, but it left the interaction void in some way.
Satisfied that he was, indeed, put together, he ran his fingers through his hair and stepped from the curtained room. The cardigan hung unbuttoned from his shoulders, a comfortable, warm weight as he crossed to the clerk and pulled his wallet from a slash pocket in his cords to pay for his purchase. The clerk gave him a smile bereft of any meaning and curtly asked him for the phone number attached to the order.
Simon tipped his head back and closed his eyes, driving his hands into his pockets as he recited his phone number. He released himself from the formal pose and scrutinized the cashier where he stood with his shoulders slouched over his keyboard, ignoring his posture and making his own suit seem about to flow off his slight form and rush to the floor; Simon imagined the embarrassment and permitted himself a private smile until the clerk straightened.
With a slight wince, Simon fished out one of his cards and passed it across. “It'll be worth it, but only just,” he tried to make it sound like a joke, but the cashier only grunted and returned his focus to the computer to run the payment through, leaving Simon to shuffle uncomfortably until a young sales associate, dressed impeccably in a blouse and skirt, tapped his shoulder and with a brilliant smile handed him his newly purchased suit. “It’s lovely; I hope you have cause to wear it often.”
“As often as I dare,” Simon felt a slight warming of his cheeks and quickly averted his eyes in embarrassment; his double in the mirror behind her holding the woman's eyes a moment longer before turning back to register to finish the necessary paper work.
A few agonizing minutes later, he made good an escape from the clothier and was on his way, diligently avoiding the mirrored glass display fronts that ran to his right as he walked quickly, his purchase slung over his shoulder as he deftly navigated through the people between him and his vehicle. He beeped the car door as he approached and opened the passenger rear door to hang the suit on the hook, feeling the fabric through the garment bag and trying not to listen to the voice at the back of his mind cursing him for the vanity of the indulgence that would likely hang in his closet months at a time, never mind that the need for a decent garment had flung itself at him with the introduction of a new job offer; people like to see that you can clean yourself up, every once in awhile, even if your default isn’t too shabby, he reflected dully, numbing himself as much as possible to the infuriating reality of the corporate dress code.
An aberrant visage seemed to appear out of the corner of his eye his reflection caught in the rearview, something upsetting that he saw almost nothing of himself in before turning sharply away, feeling an unprovoked anger rising inside, aimed at the suit, the employer, the world at large and at the root of himself.
“Shit.” The car door slammed and he walked around to the driver’s, “Damn. Hell.” It felt different, the thing that he had seen in the mirror; where as he usually felt himself become what other people needed or expected him to be, those times that he became the man in the mirror... This had was an upsetting opposite to that, something built of his own raw emotion, somehow more him than any of the others, and still beyond his reach, beyond his agency. Simon beat the steering wheel once, then gripped it between his two hands, his knuckles going white as he recited to himself “It’s not real,” in a low voice, “I’m me, I’m who everyone sees, hears and touches;” The car started and he made to pull out into traffic before adding bitterly, “And none of them are real.”
Simon's awareness of the duplicity was almost as old as he was. He had always felt separated from his actions and emotions at a deep level and had come to accept the notion that he was never the one with whom the people he interacted with regularly spoke; he left those interactions to his doppelgangers to serve as proxy, relaying the socially corrected versions of his emotions and body language, allowing the strangers within himself to characterize him to others. It was as if he had never actually spoken for himself in his life; as if some will of the universe compelled him to be someone other than himself.
Shapeshifters are nothing new, but too often who, and what, they are is a sadly neglected topic; instead, people seem to favour the novelty of the archetype, seeing either the bestial fantasy and horror of the werewolf or the subtle cunning of the enchanter. But what of the identity of the one that is caught in the constant flux? The one that can never quite guarantee that they are, in fact, the same person from one moment to the next… Do they even understand the change that comes over them, or is it something that arises so subtly that they simply continue to exist, regardless of the form, so that nothing seems out of place; they simply are and will continue to be.
When Simon reflected, he realized he never felt the changes, that he was never aware of them until he was confronted by the men in the mirror who he could not recognize; he could never tell himself that he was who he believed himself to be from one moment to the next. His world was continuous, an unbreaking path that he could trace back and remember the entirety of; but his memories of the moment were… compromised, as if those of someone that only observed the details. And when he looked in the mirror, there was never a name for the face that he saw.
The car’s motor turned off, and Simon leaned back in his seat, taking a moment to compose his thoughts. Things always seemed to be moving too fast whenever he looked in the mirror, so he tended to avoid it. It was easier to think of himself as the guiding force, the author of his life when he wasn’t confronted by one of the apparitions that confronted him in every window, mirror or polished surface. He’d even gone so far as to religiously ignore the shadows he cast, their strange shapes clinging to him. He only had a handful of places where he felt himself, and that had much more to do with the company and environment than any true change to himself.
He waited, centring himself, focusing on everything he could feel right now; the weight of his clothes, the tug of fabric on fabric with each small movement in the seat. His chest rose and fell, and he focused on slowing his breathing, and in turn, slowing his heart till its rhythm seemed to match the slowing pace of his thoughts, each one was taken in turn, then put aside. One, five ten… Simon opened his eyes and looked out the window, remembering where he was, sitting in Sara’s driveway; they were going out tonight to celebrate the new job. He checked his watch and was relieved to see that he was still running early. He put off the ritual more often than was probably healthy to avoid tardiness, despite the obvious help. He felt it was too easy to become lost…
He stopped himself from carrying the thought further and pulled the door latch and slid out of the vehicle, watching the curtains twitch as he retrieved the garment bag and approached the door; he raised a hand to knock, knowing full well that the entry would open before his knuckles touched wood, swinging wide. She grinned at him and grabbed his hand as he went through the motion anyway, a smile playing on his lips in response to her brilliance.
“Idiot,” she beamed at him, guiding his arms over her shoulders. She pressed herself in, wrapping him in a ferocious hug before tilting her head to kiss him. “Always with the sitting and waiting,” she groused as they parted, “Ten minutes. I would swear that you make me wait on purpose every time, just to see what I’ll do!”
Simon drew back and made a face. “Never. Would be poor form to miss a moment of this.” He drew her into another hug, revelling in the human contact.
“Rough day?” Sara sighed in recognition and squeezed him tighter, then disengaged to grab him by the wrist and pulled him inside. Sheets hung artfully from the wall in the dim entry over the pair of mirrors that usually hung facing each other and she drew him through and into the living area. “Need to talk about it before we go?”
His head started to shake from side to side, but the movement just ended halfway before something like exhaustion slipped over him and he settled into the sofa. Sara drew her legs up and cuddled into him. He let his arm fall over her and allowed his hand to wander unconsciously, tracing circles and patterns over her side. “So,” she prodded, “Talk.” She closed her eyes and snuggled closer.
Simon didn’t for a bit, instead closing his own eyes and relaxing. Moments like this were where he most felt like himself, and Sara seemed to understand that. She had been one of the first people to make accommodations for his idiosyncrasies, his seeming lack of self, and she always seemed to see beyond whatever the changeable facade on the outside seemed to want to portray. She had a knack for drawing out something that he could recognize as genuine within himself.
“Just too many faces today,” Simon finally murmured. Despite the low tone, the suddenness of his voice startled him and he fell silent again.
“It's the suit, the new job, isn’t it?”
He nodded slowly, then spoke before she could inquire further, “I want it; I really do.” He ran his free hand over the new cloth and smoothed a crease in the slacks.
“But it just doesn’t feel quite right.” She finished.
Simon shook his head. “No, it's more than that; I know it’s mine, I know it fits perfectly. I can feel that… It’s not the suit, or the job. They're tailored perfectly for me.” He paused and thought about the man he’d seen in the mirror. “I can’t seem to get away from the fact that I can never see myself wearing it. It’ll always be someone else that gets that privilege, and I get to watch as they take pleasure from it.” He felt her nod slightly. “I guess the point is, no matter how well it fits, no matter how much someone else says that it suits me, I’ll always be wearing someone else's clothes, someone that I’ll inevitably see at some point in the course of the day, whether I want to or not…”
Simon felt himself tense… “How narcissistic are we?... Mirrors everywhere, reflections in every sheet of glass…” Sara squeezed his knee and he reached down and took her hand, gently squeezing back as he let his pulse come back down. “I just wish…” he let his head fall back and closed his eyes again.
“I know.” Sara’s voice broke up the thought that dominated his mind more often than he cared to admit. “But that’s not really the issue…”
They sat in silence for a while, Sara just content to be next to him, even as his mind rolled over well-worn paths. He leaned down and kissed her forehead. “I don’t know why you put up with someone like me, but I’m grateful every day for it.” She smiled and opened one eye to look up at him.
“There’s only one reason to put up with someone like you,”
“Well, one reason or not, we’re going to be late.” Simon looked at the clock nestled amongst a throng of books on shelves across the room.
Sara refused the bait and closed her eye again. “You don’t talk enough. I like it when you talk.”
“How do you know it’s me talking?”
“Silly question; who else would it be? Even when you don’t sound like you, I can hear you. You’re the only one here right now, anyway.”
“Wish I saw what you see… heard what you hear.”
Sara’s brow furrowed, and she elbowed him hard enough to make him wince. “Enough wishing! If you really wanted to, you know there are ways…”
“You know why I don…”
“Bull.” both eyes snapped open and she glared at him. “I know what you’re scared of, but the reality is that you are strong enough to deal with the fallout. You just don't see it or you would be being treated.” The anger rose in her voice and she pushed herself away from him. “You know what, let’s go.” She pushed off and straightened her dress and walked to a mirror out of his line of sight to check herself. She continued as she worked with her hair. “There’s too much going for you right now, and you know it. You’re content just to not be fighting it right now, but you're not happy, whether you believe it or not, and the reason you’re not in therapy is that you know it could break all of this, that it will show you that you're not as content or happy as you think”
Simon sat and rubbed his temples. For once, thought wasn’t easy. Her words were there, stuck in his head, but for whatever reason, they were so foreign and novel that he couldn’t quite parse them. So he memorized them instead, focusing on making them as real and permanent as possible.
“You’re probably right.” He rose from the couch and closed slowly behind her, averting his eyes from the mirror, afraid of breaking the spell that permited him to be himself at this moment. He wrapped his arms around her waist, feeling her stiffen for a moment, the tension of her anger still evident… but she shed it slowly and relaxed into him. “I’ll think about it,” he promised. “I think you’re right, but right now isn’t the right time to run over this again.”
She sighed heavily. “Right… Tonight’s not supposed to be about this.” She leaned back into him and put her hands over his. “You’re still you,” she smiled “I can hear it; I can always hear it. Please just remember that.”
He nodded and kissed the top of her head. “The only one I ever wanted to…”